Balancing Support & Autonomy

Questions Instructional Leaders Can Ask To Support Their ELA Teachers

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or seen teachers complain about how they are expected to go to professional learning where the facilitators teach in ways that would never fly for classroom teachers. As someone who does an awful lot of facilitating professional learning, I have to say I agree with them. So, this year, I’ll be focusing my posts on making connections about facilitation that supports both adult and student learners. 

As an instructional leader, I’ve learned that some of the most important things I say are the questions that I ask. Sometimes there’s this weird assumption that people in leadership roles should be experts and should therefore impart wisdom everywhere they go, but the more I develop my leadership practice, the more I realize that’s a bunch of hooey. Yes, of course, there are times when I have the responsibility to bring forward research to ground our discussion and our learning, but there is simply no way that instructional leaders can or should be experts in every facet of instruction. 

You’ve probably experienced this disconnect if you’re talking with an administrator who observed your class and responded to you with something along the lines of “something I used to do was…” or “have you tried?” That kind of advice can fall flat – especially if the administrator hasn’t been engaged in the same professional learning as you and so they don’t recognize the moves you’re trying or know what kind of feedback will support you in that learning. 

Just like in a classroom, the right question can give learners a space for the kind of focused reflection that can support the next steps in their learning. And sometimes, the answers to those questions can help leaders better understand how they can support the learning, too. 

This is tough work: We want to ask questions that are focused enough to give the learning some direction – a map if you will. But we want those questions to be open-ended enough to allow learners to have the autonomy to make some choices along that path (even a GPS offers multiple route options). 

In this classroom, that’s where so much of our expertise and craft lies. We plan for how to frame a mentor text analysis, how to ask questions that will spark discussion, how to give feedback that will help writers get to the heart of their ideas. 


For instructional leaders like principals, this is a craft, too, and it’s one that you may have to balance across multiple content areas or grade level courses, many of which you may have never taught. 

If you’re an instructional leader who supports secondary teachers who are shifting toward a workshop-based instructional framework or who are implementing authentic approaches to teaching literacy, I’ve found that it’s important to: 

  1. Learn alongside teachers. This comes with the caveat: when it makes the most sense. If all of the teachers in the department are going to a professional learning on a particular topic and are developing some common language, that’s a good professional learning to join them for. If they’re working in small groups in more vulnerable settings like labs, then it might be more helpful to debrief with them after the fact to plan for next steps of support. 
  2. Collaborate and learn separate from teachers. A good professional learning plan will offer teachers support in applying their new learning. After you join teachers for a professional learning opportunity, how are you getting support in what application means for your role? Work together with coaches, consultants, and your team to learn about how to give feedback and to plan for next steps in support that will support teachers’ learning.
  3. Focus on asking, not telling. As you learn alongside your teachers and in collaboration with other leaders, you’ll be better supported in honing the craft of asking those questions that offer a balance of focus and autonomy. As you do this, here are some questions you may try tomorrow to support your teachers in:  

Reading 

What are you reading these days? 

What are your students reading together? Why? 

What are your students recommending to each other?

How are your students doing with finding books that they want to read? 

How can I support you in making sure you have access to enough reading options? 

An authentic or workshop-based approach to reading instruction can often be a big shift for secondary Language Arts teachers. For many, it involves moving away from teaching a novel because it’s a good novel and toward purposefully developing authentic reading habits. To start, this can mean having a say in what we read and why (and when) we discuss it with others. These questions can help teachers frame their instruction around seeing themselves and their students as readers instead of focusing on the individual pieces of literature as the goal. In order to support this, teachers will need access to books – and lots of them. 

Writing 

What have you been writing lately? 

Why are your students writing? 

Who are they writing for? 

How might you support their process? 

How can I help connect your students with an audience? 

Similarly, these questions shift the conversation to writers, why we write, and how we write. This is a significant shift away from centering the conversation around what we write, and it’s one that’s critical in teaching writing in an authentic, engaging, and equitable way. 

Asking a question that balances support and autonomy always looks simpler in a list than it is in real life, so I’d love to hear more about what questions you’re asking to support the teachers you work with in authentic instruction at the secondary level. What questions have you asked to support a teacher you work with? What questions do you wish an instructional leader would ask you? 

ASCD, 2021

Megan 

If you’re interested in thinking more about supporting instructional leaders, I’m excited to share that I’ve recently published a book on this topic along with my friends Carly Stone and Samantha Keesling. It’s available through ASCD and Amazon now, and I’d love to talk with you more about it and about all things literacy and professional learning. Connect with me via twitter @megankortlandt or email: megankortlandt@gmail.com 

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